East Lansing — Tom Izzo has talked about it often — more times than not, having the advantage in college basketball comes down to matchups.
Some teams simply don’t match up well with others and vice versa.
As Michigan State gets set to head to Purdue on Saturday for a 4 p.m. tip-off with the Boilermakers, it is probably facing its toughest matchup of the season. As Izzo said after practice on Thursday, “Pick your poison.”
That’s how it might feel facing the Boilermakers (21-5, 10-3 Big Ten), who have arguably the best player in the Big Ten and maybe the country leading the way. Caleb Swanigan is averaging 18.7 points and 13 rebounds and is joined in the frontcourt by 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas.
And if the brute force up front wasn’t enough, the Boilermakers also happen to be the best 3-point shooting team in the Big Ten, making 41.3 percent of their shots from long range.
“They have arguably one of the best players in the whole nation in Biggie (Swanigan) and the 3-point shooting is what changed this team from last year,” Izzo said. “They are a much better 3-point shooting team. Some guys doubled them (in the post) like Nebraska and then they hit 12 or 13 3-pointers against them.
“You’ve got to pick your poison a little bit. We’ll probably mix it up a little bit but they are a good team. We had our chances early in that game and had our chances late in that game. Foul trouble did hurt us and that will always be the case when you have that kind of matchup.”
That first game was an 84-73 win for Purdue at Michigan State on Jan. 24. Swanigan was nearly unstoppable in that game, scoring 25 points and grabbing 17 rebounds for one of his 22 double-doubles this season, a number that leads the nation.
The Boilermakers were also 11-for-21 from 3-point range in that game, taking advantage of 11 offensive rebounds as they outrebounded the Spartans, 36-23. That will be a big key on Saturday.
“They’re gonna get their boards but there’s no excuse for getting outrebounded by 13,” Izzo said. “They’re very good but that’s not who we are, either. We’ve challenged Nick (Ward) and some of these guys. We challenged our guards, too. We’ve got to do a better job of going from cutting out to rebounding.”
Ward and sophomore Kenny Goins both understand the challenge they face. It’s something they struggled with in the first meeting as Ward and Goins each had just one rebound. They were both also in foul trouble — Ward had four and Goins fouled out.
Changing that the second time around is easier said than done for the Spartans (16-10, 8-5), but both have been working hard to be more of a factor.
“First and foremost is foul trouble,” Goins said. “That’s always going to be the case when you’re going up against somebody that size. There is a lot of contact down there. We’ve got to keep them off the glass and they’re gonna go every time and they are big down there. We have to do our part as centers and forwards and maybe the guards clean it up more.”
That’s something Michigan State has been emphasizing the last few weeks — getting wing players like Eron Harris, Joshua Langford and Matt McQuaid to do a better job of rebounding.
One player who could make a difference in more ways than one is Miles Bridges. He had 33 points and eight rebounds in the last meeting, but he might be asked to spend some time guarding Swanigan, as well.
“I do think we’re gonna,” Izzo said of using Bridges on Swanigan. “Miles is in a better place now as far as physically where he’s at and understanding the game, so that could happen more. We’re gonna have to throw a lot of guys at Biggie. He’s playing pretty well.”
There’s no doubt it will take a team effort to slow the Boilermakers and pull off the upset, but it’s one Ward is looking forward to after struggling in the first meeting.
“Yeah, I love it,” Ward said. “I’m not one to step away from anything, not one to back down from anything. So I take Saturday as a challenge and I’ll try to step up to the plate.”